Police and other first responders across British Columbia are gearing up contingency plans as the Omicron variant helps drive rapid COVID-19 transmission around the province.
In other jurisdictions, staffing shortages due to infected or isolating officers have put major strain on police forces and other first responders.
Winnipeg’s police chief declared a “state of emergency” due to 90 active cases and 170 members isolating, while both Calgary and Edmonton have reported significant impacts to their own police services.
In B.C., the early impacts have begun to be felt. Nearly half of Prince Rupert’s fire department was isolating from COVID on Thursday, while the province’s largest RCMP detachment confirmed dozens of staff had called in sick this week.
Victoria Police Chief Del Manak said Thursday he had taken the extraordinary step of invoking a clause in members’ contracts, effective Monday, that allows him to reassign officers where needed, potentially putting detectives and supervisors on patrol, if needed.
Manak wouldn’t say exactly how many officers had been affected, but confirmed officers had been off work due to the virus.
“Has the Omicron impacted the Victoria police department? Absolutely. It’s impacted our officers, our staff, as it has every organization,” Manak said.
“The way it’s trending, the situation most likely is going to get worse before it gets better. We need to be predicting that, we need to be ahead of that. We want to be ahead of that. And we want to do everything we can to maintain a level or operational readiness.”
Victoria police were following provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s latest guideline on return to work, and that vaccinated officers whose symptoms had resolved were coming back after five days.
In Surrey, the RCMP said 21 officers and 10 civilian staff had called in sick due to COVID-19 since Dec. 28.
Spokesperson Sgt. Elenore Sturko said the detachment was using a similar model to what Victoria was implementing, which would allow it to move officers from “areas where operations can be reduced or delayed” into front-line positions.
The detachment has operated an internal emergency operations centre to track and manage illnesses and absences since early 2020, she said.
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“For example, we’re not doing a lot of school presentations, you know schools are being impacted as well. So we’re able to shift some of those officers into front-line operations,” Sturko said.
She added that RCMP officers were isolating for seven days, rather than the province’s reduced five-day guideline.
Vancouver police would not disclose how many officers were isolating due to COVID-19 but said Omicron had not significantly affected operations.
“We are not currently concerned about our ability to provide service to the city and to maintain current service levels,” Sgt. Steve Addison said.
“We do have contingency plans in place should we have a significant number of police officers or civilian staff members who do go down as a result of COVID. Right now we’re doing OK.”
Addison said the VPD also had plans that would allow it to move officers from investigative divisions to the front line, but that the department was “not at that point right now.”
In a statement, BC Emergency Health Services, which operates the province’s ambulance service, said it was “closely monitoring staffing levels” and had an internal emergency coordination centre tracking COVID-19 risks.
The Provincial Health Services Authority said as on Jan. 4, there were 69 paramedics and dispatchers out of a workforce of 4,000 who had called in sick, though couldn’t confirm they were all related to COVID-19.
Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Dispatchers Union, said he had been told COVID-19 cases in the service were consistent with other health-care professions and public safety disciplines.
“I heard today somewhere up to 15 per cent were off. I know Dr. Bonnie Henry has said expect to have 25, 30 per cent of staff in all business, services out — I don’t know if we will see that,” he said.
“Omicron is a game changer in the sense of how many people are off with signs and symptoms,” he added.
“That’s what we’re going to be working on over the next couple of days, how we’re going to be better prepared, is there anything else we can do to enhance it, (have) managers on deck … those are the things we’re pushing for.”
Clifford said the BC Ambulance Service could be stretched thin, with the already well-reported staffing challenges it has faced now exacerbated by illness.
Professional Firefighters Association president Gord Ditchburn said Thursday that the new variant is affecting firefighters in communities across the province.
“It does have an impact, but we are mitigating that by having extra staff available. Departments are meeting their staffing needs in a variety of ways, either by using volunteers or overtime,” Ditchburn said in an interview.
The City of Prince Rupert said in a statement that five members returned to work Thursday, leaving eight of 20 firefighters still isolating because of COVID-19.
It said the department is managing, but if it can’t address serious incidents with its staffing level, it has an agreement with the volunteer firefighting department in neighbouring Port Edward to help.
— with files from Rumina Daya and the Canadian Press